California Arts Funding On The Chopping Block

A scene from the play “Appropriate” from the 2022-2023 season at South Coast Repertory. Photo courtesy of SCR/Jenny Graham

Just two scant years ago, California was sitting plush with a $97 billion budget surplus. The state budget for 2022-23 was a healthy $307 billion and funded a long list of program expansions, civic improvements and infrastructure commitments.

We’re in a hole. A deep hole. The state recovered much less tax revenue than expected this year. (Remember the tax payment deferrals during the pandemic? Budget planners and legislators had to guess how much they’d eventually collect. They guessed wrong. Good times.) That, plus inflation, a volatile year for Wall Street, and a weakened Silicon Valley left the state an estimated $28 billion in the red – and that’s on the low end of the estimate. That means Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators are making unpleasant, unpopular cuts in fiscal year 2024-25, including an across-the-board 7.95% reduction in funding for nearly all state departments. 

If you are in the arts, or have attended arts events, or are vaguely aware of the word “arts,” you know that the cuts will hit that field particularly hard. An across-the-board reduction means exactly that, shared pain with no exceptions, but considering the impact the arts make on the state economy – an estimated 740,000+ jobs and 7.7% of the state GDP – the field routinely subsists on a very tiny slice of a very large pie.

The first budget proposal the governor made suggested a 58% cut to California’s state arts programs. Among those cuts is a $10 million reduction from $26 million to $16 million to the California Arts Council (CAC), the state agency that supports local arts infrastructure.

So arts funding is only being cut by $5 million. Only.

What does this mean for Orange County?

Last year, through the CAC, Orange County received approximately $600,000, which it divvied up among numerous arts organizations and programs. The county also received a sizable portion of the nearly $1 million the CAC designated for Individual Artist Fellowships in a region that also includes Riverside and San Diego counties.

For the foreseeable future, though, local arts organizations seeking state funds will experience what is euphemistically called belt-tightening. Given that state support is drying up this year and likely next, what does the Orange County arts landscape look like going forward?

If anyone has a crystal ball that speaks to this topic, it’s Julie Baker, CEO of California for the Arts and of California Arts Advocates, the Golden State’s statewide arts advocacy organizations. She and her organizations were critical in restoring some of the initial proposed cuts, and the work continues.

“If you take a $10 million cut, that has massive impact in terms of arts and culture,” she said. “The bottom line is, for local assistance the fund has been at $26 million since 2019 and has remained steady for five years. The baseline really didn’t grow at the rate of other agencies. Our pot was already at cut levels, we weren’t bloated, and we have significant impact across the state. So when the proposed budget was released, we sprung into action, presented 10,000 support letters, and had a sign-on coalition letter that included labor unions and trade associations. We showed up in person in Sacramento with advocates to say we oppose the cuts.

“The legislature put back the bare budget and said, ‘These are our priorities’ in the budget they sent back to the governor. That included only a $5 million cut to agency this and next fiscal year, and then restoration, not $10 million ongoing.”

In short, it could have been worse. Much worse. In Florida, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis has vetoed almost all funding for arts and culture in his state’s budget. 

“It’s really important that you have an advocacy organization ready to go, because if we hadn’t made the noise and organized and mobilized, it’s less likely you would have had the legislature prioritize it,” Baker said. “If people are not making noise in their district, at end of day it comes down to the five people in the room making the decision, and you want to get to a couple of those people and make them aware it’s important to who they represent. The fact we got it back is a good thing.”

So advocacy mitigated some of the damage. Still, it’s inescapable that there will be less to go around in FY 2024-25 and Orange County arts patrons and practitioners should brace for impact, as should the rest of the state.

“The pool is that much more competitive (with less funding), and the CAC will have to make really hard decisions about who gets funding and who doesn’t,” Baker said. “We’ll see even more people who took time to apply and who need funding be denied. And when you have fewer public dollars and live in a community with a lack of philanthropy, unlike Los Angeles or San Francisco, I mean rural areas and communities of color, they’ll be hit the hardest.”

Less public funding translates into fewer performances, fewer programs, fewer after-school or summer school classes, and fewer free programs. And it impacts cities that already face challenges bringing the arts to their communities.  

“It really impacts access and equity,” Baker said. “Arts workers will also suffer. Most public funding has gone to artist fellowships. Orange County has recently distributed nearly $1 million in arts fellowships (through the state). So it’s the artists, art workers and culture bearers who will suffer.”

John Forsyte, president and CEO of Orange County’s Pacific Symphony, knows better than most the challenges of sustaining an arts organization during economic downturns. And he’s also puzzled by the state government’s historical underfunding of the field.

“California is considered a leading hub of the creative economy, renowned for its vibrant arts and culture scene that fuels innovation and economic growth for our state,” he said. “The relatively small funding amount dedicated to arts grants is perplexing, given the state’s substantial cultural contributions. Reducing an already modest funding level further underscores a lack of understanding about the critical role public funding plays in building and sustaining cultural infrastructure.

“Investing in the arts is investing in the future – cultivating a well-rounded, dynamic and resilient populace equipped to face the challenges of tomorrow.  Increasingly, one hears about tech companies placing an emphasis on people with creative and problem-solving skills nurtured by an arts education. Ensuring sustained public funding for the arts is essential for maintaining California’s status as a leader in the creative economy and for nurturing the rich cultural landscape that defines the state.”

In the midst of a crisis, it’s cold comfort to remember the cyclical nature of the economy. Four years ago, the pandemic had closed down every theater, every concert hall and every museum in the state. Sixteen years ago, the subprime mortgage collapse sent the national economy into freefall. Before that, the Enron scandal. Before that, the dotcom bust. Before that, the junk bond meltdown. Before that, the savings and loan crisis. The state has seen cycles like this before and will see them again. But there are bills to pay right now. Plays that need sets. Exhibitions that need a program. Artists with visionary stories waiting to be told. And the state is excusing itself from the conversation. Even in times of plenty, the arts are an economic driver that doesn’t command the attention or respect it ought to.

“We’re grateful to the legislature for recognizing the arts’ importance and putting most of the funding back,” Baker said. “It should be at $80 million in a state with the largest creative economy in the nation.  But it’s not there yet. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.”   

John Forsyte, quoted in this story, is a member of the advisory board for Culture OC.

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